As I’ve made my way through the dozens of books nominated for the Cybils Award in YA Fiction—I’m now up to 55—a few books have come to stand out. I’ve already reviewed some and will be focusing on others in the next couple of months. One of my favorites is Isabel Quintero’s debut novel, Gabi: A Girl in Pieces, published by Cinco Puntos Press. Quintero’s novel shows that some of the most interesting, innovative, and honest titles come from the small press world.
Gabi: A Girl in Pieces chronicles Gabi Hernandez’s senior year in high school. Because she skipped a year, she is a little younger than her peers, and she watches as many of them take risks and make difficult or outright bad choices. The story begins with her best friend Cindy’s unplanned pregnancy—the result, Cindy later reveals, of a date rape. Gabi’s mother (and many other mothers in their community) got pregnant by accident and either had children out of wedlock or married too young, and they warn their daughters : “‘Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas,’ Eyes open, legs closed.” Still, the girls live in a hypersexualized environment that reinforces traditional gender roles and the double standard for men and women. Gabi chafes against the hypocrisy, as does her other best friend Sebastian, who is kicked out of his house because he is gay. Gabi’s mother struggles to support the family while her father battles a meth addiction. Gabi’s efforts to connect with her father and to remember the good times are among the most poignant parts of a beautifully written and emotionally gripping story.
Gabi’s voice, her spunk, and her growing acceptance of who she is—a fat girl who seeks comfort in food while trying to live life on her own terms—give Quintero’s novel the kind of unforgettable quality that has made Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a classic for teen and adult readers. Gabi: A Girl in Pieces shares the structure of a yearlong diary and a story that moves forward through vignettes. Like Junior in Alexie’s novel, Gabi juggles her own ambitions with the expectations her community and the wider society have for her, and she does a superb job of exploring the tangle of gender roles, body image, and sexuality that teenage girls face. But while Quintero explores universal themes, well-chosen details give this novel a cultural specificity and richness so that it speaks directly to young Latinas while allowing others into the world of its author and protagonist. Award committees take note—this is an amazing novel from a bright new star.